COCKEYSVILLE, Md — A unique program that partners retired thoroughbred racehorses with veterans to help combat PTSD is now adapting to help Maryland National Guardsmen who are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's been rewarding every day. Just to see the smiles on the faces," employee Steve Mooney said.
Mooney first got involved with Saratoga WarHorse 5 years ago, participating after he got back from a deployment in Afghanistan and suffered from PTSD and insomnia.
"It has help me cope with things a little different. Help me look at stress a little different," Mooney said.
After going through the program in another state, Mooney helped start a branch at the Baltimore County Center for Agriculture in 2018.
"How many marriages did we save? How many people came off substance abuse?" Mooney said.
He said the program changes lives with the connection veterans work to earn from horses.
"They're running around the pen trying to avoid you, and then as you interact with the horse, it comes to a point that the horse is gonna say, 'alright, I wanna be your friend now,'" Mooney said.
"You can see that moment when that horse and that vet decide to become friends, and there's a kind of like a handshake, and that's probably the coolest part of this whole program for me," volunteer Marc Junkerman said.
An Army vet, Junkerman also decided to volunteer with the program after participating himself and feeling the change.
"I had to be mindful that whatever I was bringing into that ring had to positive. I had to put all the negativity down because otherwise, you're not going to get that connection with the horse. So, what's really cool is if you put that negativity down and then go in there and connect, you usually bring something better out," Junkerman said. "The flip side is, why would you then pick up something you put down? We will clean it up with the other stuff at the end of the day."
Now, the program is adapting to help the thousands of Maryland National Guardsmen who dropped what they were doing to help the state through this pandemic.
"This is a completely different thing that none of us have dealt with in the past," Tech Sgt. Miriam Jarvis said.
Jarvis was one of the first to try the pilot program on the eve of Veterans Day and said she would definitely tell her fellow service members about the unique opportunity.
"We can relax more when we are outside the base and take off the uniform, and we can just express what we are feeling, so this is a huge opportunity for people to come off base and do that," Jarvis said.
This story was originally published by Abby Isaacs on WMAR in Baltimore.